Bob Gallon has worked on the Bell Estate in Thirsk for all his working life, and has witnessed sixty years of change in farming.
Farming in the 1940s
Bob Gallon began work at the age of fourteen, having been evacuated to Thirsk. He says, “It was during the war when we had PoWs and Land Army girls as well.”
At that time, the Estate was worked by tenant farmers, who paid their rent, hired hands, worked the land, and kept any profits they made. Bob says that in total, 60 men worked on the estate. Today, just three men farm the whole of the estate, using modern machinery.
Bob has no argument with progress: he enjoyed his work both before and after modernisation. However, he comments, “The most interesting thing I’d like to have done was to thatch corn stacks and hay stacks. I learned a little bit when I first started, but I never got long enough to practice it before we got the combine [harvester].”
Thatching, he adds, “Was a job that the old hands used to be really good at. It was practice made perfect, the same as when you piled potatoes in clamps. You couldn’t just put some in and say you could do it – it was skilled, because you had to keep the frost out of them. The only way to learn is to start young and be shown, like an apprenticeship.”
Introduction of machinery
Of all the changes Bob has seen, the biggest, he says, was the combine harvester. He says, “When machinery came, you just had to get on and learn to use it. There was no college work like there is now, it was just a matter of experience.”
The cost of machinery leads farmers to specialise. The estate where Bob works now has a specialist machine for harvesting potatoes, but no longer milks cows. Bob says, “We don’t keep stock [cattle] like we used to. We used to have beasts for the auction mart. The mart used to be on Station Road and we walked the beasts down there. Now they all go by wagon.”
Bob recalls that a set of gates on Kirkgate opened into a farmyard, and says that the cows knew their own way from there to their field past the Church. He says, “We’d let them go, and about 20 minutes later I’d go up to check them.”
He adds, “I was taught to count legs, not heads, so’s to see if they’re lame. My first boss would say, ‘Have you counted them beasts?’ I’d say ‘yes’ and he’d say, ‘Were they stood up?’ and I’d say no, and he’d say, ‘Go back and see if they’re right. If they’re lying down, they could be poorly.”
In the arable crops, when he was a boy, Bob would weed cornfields by walking along the rows with a hoe. Today, sprays make it rare to see a weed in a field of corn.
Bob believes that changes in farming have led to changes in wildlife. He says, “There is a difference, to do with different farming. Gone are the days when a farmer would leave a field fallow. It was left, then you got all the wildlife there – then it spilled out and ate the crops too.”
Nowadays, the wildlife lives in the verges. Bob says, “No one has the time to cut them now, but when I was young, they were all cut, to look tidy.”
“As for rabbits,” he continues, “They are out of control. They are not the farmers’ friend, because they eat the crops. They can do a lot of damage. When I was young, everybody used to like rabbit pie. The 60 families on the estate would trap a rabbit for supper. Now there are more rabbits because people don’t want rabbit pie.”
And, he comments, “Now your spray kills a lot of weeds which the birds used to feed on. You don’t see skylarks so much now because the weeds they feed on are gone. All hedges used to be cut by hand – if you saw a bird’s nest, you’d leave it. Now they’re all cut by machinery.”
But, points out Bob, “What do the general public want: more wildlife, or more food? It’s intensive farming now. Intensive food is what the public want.”
“I’m not judging that one way’s better than another, it’s just different. You have to keep up with the modern way now, you can’t go back to the old-fashioned way. Yields have increased, and you’ve got to feed people – they have to find something to feed the population.”
Nowadays, Bob is semi-retired, but he still looks after a small herd of Dexters. He says, “I like to see beasts. I talk and they take notice, they follow me. Like everything, you have to be kind to them, and treat them with respect.”
He adds with a smile, “It’s still a thrill to see a new calf.”
Read more in “Sixty Years of Change” in the March 2015 edition of Dalesman Magazine